Almost 20 years have passed since the release of Steven Spielberg’s dystopian retelling of the Pinocchio fairy tale. A dark and challenging departure from both Spielberg’s broadly appealing early blockbusters and his forays into formal historical pieces, AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) envisions a future society in which mankind has turned to developing human-like robots known as “mecha” in the wake of environmental disaster. Originally developed in collaboration with Stanley Kubrick before his death, much of the initial knee-jerk criticism centred on the inability to reconcile Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality with Kubrick’s cerebralism. However, instead of a patchwork of conflicting styles, reappraisal of AI reveals a truly visionary film that brims with imagination and ambition in every frame.
The film’s first act presents the future primarily through a domestic prism and focuses on Monica and Henry Swinton, a couple grieving their incurably ill son’s comatose state. To provide some form of solace, the Swinton’s are provided with a prototype mecha that has been designed with the capacity for unconditional love by Geppetto-like Professor Allen Hobby (William Hurt). The arrival of the mecha, known as David (Haley Joel Osment), disrupts the familial dynamic and triggers feelings of guilt and discomfort in Monica until she eventually grows to reciprocate his love.
Spielberg achieves a remarkable balancing act in this opening movement, authoritatively weaving elements from multiple genres including horror and comedy to render an engrossing familial setting that draws the audience in as the viewer, alongside the characters, carefully examines David’s behaviour as if observing an unpredictable experiment. This is only intensified after the Swinton’s son, Martin, unexpectedly awakens and, in a well-executed and distressing sequence, David is faced with abandonment. Alongside a wise “supertoy” aptly named Teddy, David embarks on an odyssey to find the blue fairy of the “Pinocchio” fable that will make him human and, in his mind, deserving of his mother’s love once more.
Haley Joel Osment is astounding as David
Having received an Oscar nomination in the preceding year for his indelible performance in “The Sixth Sense” (1999), Haley Joel Osment is astounding as David. He imbues the role with vulnerability and childlike purity counterbalanced with an unblinking mechanical eeriness, resulting in a captivating and profoundly sympathetic character which the film’s success is entirely dependent on. Indeed, the principle cause of Kubrick’s difficulties when originally developing AI centred on his outright dismissal of any child actor being capable of authentically portraying David. Yet Osment’s nuanced and affecting performance keeps the viewer enthralled throughout the 140-minute running time as we follow David across the vistas of the 22nd Century alongside on-the-run “loverbot” Gigolo Joe, charismatically portrayed by Jude Law. With environments ranging from moonlit forests littered with the remains of mutilated mechas through to the brutal gladiatorial “flesh fairs” and the neon-lit spectacle of rouge city, the visual wonder on display is impactful and vividly captured by Janusz Kominski’s dynamic cinematography.
Spielberg conveys the tragedy of David’s epic quest to be loved in the face of hostility and terror without the sense of emotional manipulation sometimes associated with his work
Rather than depend on the visual components, however, Spielberg seeks to match the cinematic flourishes with depth. David undergoes a profound existential journey as he observes the destructive capacity of humanity and benefits from the kindness of apparently unfeeling machines, culminating in a masterfully surreal and horror-inflected scene in which David comes to fully comprehend the nature of his existence. Explaining man’s inhumanity to machine, Joe explains, “they made us too smart, too quick and too many…when the end comes, all that will be left is us”. In striving to create a consistent melancholic mood throughout the film, utilizing cold, wide-lensed framing and restrained use of John Williams’s ominous score, Spielberg conveys the tragedy of David’s epic quest to be loved in the face of hostility and terror without the sense of emotional manipulation sometimes associated with his work. It is interesting to note that in what is perhaps the most interesting yet overlooked period of his career Spielberg released AI, Minority Report (2002) and Catch Me If You Can (2002) over the course of just 18 months. Each of these films is unique yet perfectly crafted with a consistent and evocative atmosphere and it is unfortunate that this sense of ambition has made way for unexciting albeit handsomely mounted awards bait.
The final 30 minutes of the film are the most contentious as AI swerves strongly into the sci-fi genre with exciting confidence that is sure to polarize viewers and leave some mystified perhaps in a similar way to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Many critics at the time falsely ascribed what they perceived as a saccharine conclusion to Spielberg rather than what was in truth from the mind of the apparently hard-hearted Stanley Kubrick. Indeed, this reading of the finale is a misunderstanding of what is both a logical extension of the established world of AI and a deeply morose conclusion with merely the veneer of sentimentality, providing what is in my mind at least both an intellectually and emotionally substantial ending.
Revisiting AI, and in particular it’s uncompromising final act, has offered a powerful reminder of how great large-budget cinema can be
The pre-pandemic Hollywood environment was predicated on the mechanical production of mega-budget, crowd-pleasing and risk-averse spectacle almost universally based upon popular intellectual property. Meanwhile, experiments attempting to match scale with intellect such as the similarly existential Blade Runner 2049 (2017) have been met with mainstream indifference. Revisiting AI, and in particular it’s uncompromising final act, has offered a powerful reminder of how great large-budget cinema can be, when guided by an auteur and with personality. Arguably these voices have been lost as the hunger for maximising commercial appeal has grown.
Despite having suffered a tepid commercial and critical response, AI: Artificial Intelligence is a staggering accomplishment in Steven Spielberg’s lauded career. Spielberg and Kubrick simultaneously created a spectacular deconstruction of the “Pinocchio” fable, a dystopian indictment of humanity and a creative, existential investigation into the nature of technology. Whilst sure to leave some cold, this example of singular and distinctly imaginative big-budget filmmaking is refreshing in the Hollywood environment of today that prizes sequels, reboots and remakes above all.
Feature image credit: IMDb